“Line Describing a Cone” (1973) by Anthony McCall. Photo credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times.
A few years ago, while working at a used bookstore, someone sold us a DVD copy of By Brakhage. I vaguely knew of Stan Brakhage and his work, so I stashed the anthology in the back, bought it on my break, and raced home after work to watch it. After about twenty minutes, my excitement had faded and I was left feeling underwhelmed. The issue wasn’t the films themselves but rather the setting. Watching experiment film on a boxy 27-inch TV from the 1990s in your parents’ basement isn’t the most ideal set-up. The Whitney is the appropriate environment for this kind of avant-garde and experimental film.
With close to forty artists in Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, selecting a few highlights isn’t easy, but Oskar Fischinger’s “Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art)” (1926, restored 2012) is definitely one that shouldn’t be missed. This three-channel projection of colorful shapes and images set to music was one of the earliest multimedia installations of abstract art and predates Disney’s Fantasia–which Fischinger did concept drawings for shortly after leaving Germany for Hollywood in 1936. Another powerful piece is Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). Installed in a nearly pitch-black room, light from a projector slowly breaks down the physical space by eschewing an image and emphasizing that the work is pure light. Lasting ten minutes, a circle is drawn on the wall and a cone becomes visible in the smoky room extending from project to wall. Ben Coonley’s “Trading Futures” (2016) is a 3D video set inside of a cardboard geodesic dome. The ‘professor’ in this piece calls on the viewer to actively.look around and respond to certain commands–close one eye, now the other–while discussing financial derivative trading. Also noteworthy are the works of Lynn Hershman Leeson (1966-2010), Terence Broad’s “Blade Runner – Autoencoded” (2016), and iconic pieces like “Rose Hobart” (1936) by Joseph Cornell and “CROSSROADS” (1976) by Bruce Conner.
The Whitney has transformed its fifth floor into a space devoted to charting a course through the twentieth century up to the present in order to explore arthouse cinema, experimental film, and digital video. Dreamlands is successful as an exhibition, but not every work is immersive. In some areas there is sound bleeding, others have distracting light from works across the hall, and some just don’t fit. That being said, many works do fully immerse the viewer; they can draw you in and keep your attention for twenty-plus minutes. Overall, Dreamlands is a huge success and proof that the Whitney is capable of almost anything.